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Weight Watchers New Program First Impressions

I posted earlier about the new Weight Watchers program.  We have known for awhile that Weight Watchers trademarked SmartPoints.  And, with the new calculator online asking us for the amount of saturated fat and sugar in food, it wasn’t too big a leap to figure out that Weight Watchers was going to use those numbers to calculate points.  And, the assumption was that foods with high saturated fat or high sugar would be higher points.  Weight Watchers has billed its new program as the “biggest change in 50 years.”  I wasn’t sure if that was hype when I first saw that, but I am starting to be a believer.

Since posting about new program, I’ve had time to look a bit at the calculator and to see how big the changes will be in how points are calculated.  Based upon what I’ve seen the changes are major.  And, I like them.
I wanted to give some my first impressions but with two huge caveats.  First, I am sure that there are tons of things about the new program that I don’t yet know.  We know a little bit about the general overview of the program from the Australian Weight Watchers site.  And, more information can be obtained on the U.S. site by changing the date on your computer to a later date after the new program comes out.  From that, I was able to play with the new calculator to see the SmartPoints value of various foods and compare them to the current values.  The thing is that since the program has not yet been released, it is possible that what we are able to see through this method isn’t the final information.  For that reason, I’m not going to post a bunch of numbers for specific foods. Values could change when the program if fully implemented.
Second, there isn’t much information about FitPoints which is apparently the new name Weight Watchers has given to what is now called Activity Points.  It is unclear to me how FitPoints differ from Activity Points or even if they do.  I’m sure there are other changes that exist that don’t really show up in the limited information available.
What all of this means is to take my first impressions with a huge grain of salt.  The actual program when fully implemented and live may differ.   That is why I don’t want to give specific SmartPoints for particular foods.  I think, however, I can talk about the broader concepts.

Calculating SmartPoints

From what I have seen, what matters in calculating SmartPoints are the total calories in the foods, the amount of saturated fat, the amount of sugar and the amount of protein.  In every food I’ve calculated, nothing else matters.  Although the calculator asks for the grams of fat, carbs, and fiber, those numbers don’t matter to the calculation.  I’ve seen some members complain about right now having the put in 7 numbers with the new food tracker.  In reality – in the current program – you can put in 0 for saturated fat and sugar and it makes no difference to the point calculation because the current PointsPlus calculation doesn’t use those numbers.
I suspect that once the new program goes live that the calculator may shrink down to just the 4 inputs that matter — calories, saturated fat, sugar, and protein.  Maybe they will still allow you to input the other values, if you want to, but on all the foods I calculated the other things didn’t matter at all.  I could literally put in 0 fat and 0 carbs and 0 fiber, and it made no difference to the SmartPoints value.
I caution that I haven’t tried many foods.  So maybe there are foods where those things matter.  And, the calculator that I am playing with may not be the final calculator.  But, if it is the final calculator, then my general impression is this:  saturated fat and sugar increase the SmartPoints value, while protein decreases it.  To give an example.  Take a food that is 120 calories.  Depending on the amount of protein, saturated fat, or sugar in that food, it can end up with a SmartPoints value of 1 or a SmartPoint value of 7 or something in between.  It is closer to the low end with more protein and is more to the high end with a lot of sugar or saturated fat.  Of course, many foods have a mix of all of these and may be more in the middle.
The TL;DR is this:  Given 2 foods of equal calories, protein lowers the Smart Points value.  Saturated fat and sugar increase the Smart Points value.  At the same time, the calculator doesn’t seem to care how the calories are distributed between fat that isn’t saturated and carbs that aren’t sugar.  For example, I put in a food and said that all of its calories were fat, but none of them were saturated.  That food had the same SmartPoints value as saying that a food of the same calories was entirely carbs (none of which was sugar).  But, if I said that the food was entirely protein, the SmartPoints value went down.  And, if I said that the food was entirely sugar or entirely saturated fat, then the SmartPoints value went way up.

How the amount of points has changed

I went back and calculated the points of lots of foods both under PointsPlus and SmartPoints.  Those Foods fell within 4 categories:
Foods that went down in points
Yes, some foods have a SmartPoints value that is less than the PointsPlus value.  Those foods are, unsurprisingly, foods that have a lot of protein and not much saturated fat or sugar.  Think chicken breast, turkey breast, and lean fish.  For example, one food that I had recently eaten went from 5 PointsPlus to 3 SmartPoints.  A protein type bar that I eat went from 5 to 4.
Foods that didn’t change in points
For me, a lot of foods didn’t change at all.  There are some nuts that I eat almost every day.  They didn’t change for the serving size I eat.  Lots of foods that are a mixture of macronutrients and aren’t particularly high in saturated fat and sugar or in protein just stayed the same.
Foods that went up in points a little bit
These are foods that, depending on portion size, usually went up 1 or 2 points.  So, it used to be 4 points and now it is 5.  Or, it was 8 points and now it is 10 points.  A lot of restaurant foods and packaged foods fell within this group.  These were often foods that aren’t necessarily awful for you.  They either have some nutrition in them or, if a snack type food, are low enough in calories for the serving size I eat that the increase is small.  For example, a particular salad that I had at a restaurant went from 6 PointsPlus to 7 SmartPoints.  A sandwich from a fast food place went from 7 PointsPlus to 8 SmartPoints.
The increases are small enough that it is easy to shrug them off.  However, if you have several of these in a day — as I often do — then the increases adds up quickly.  So, a 26 point day on PointsPlus became a 32 point day using SmartPoints.
Foods that went us a lot in points
This is where I really do think this program is revolutionary.  These are the foods that are high in sugar or saturated fat.  Even the ones that have a goodly amount of protein in them have gone up.  But, the ones that are high in sugar or saturated fat and don’t have protein in them have gone up a lot.  By a lot, I mean that some of them have doubled or nearly doubled in points.
For example, there was a nonfat frozen yogurt that I recently ate that was very high in sugar.  Its SmartsPoint value is double that of its PointsPlus value.  The change in these types of foods is dramatic.  Suffice it to say, that eating a ton of foods that are high sugar or drinking sugary drinks is likely to not be a very viable course of action.  Occasionally will be fine, but not all the time.
Saturated fat increases SmartsPoint value quite a lot as well, but it doesn’t seem as dramatic as the effect of sugar because saturated fat is usually coupled with protein.  That is, you don’t usually eat a food that is 100% saturated fat, while it is entirely possible to have something that is 100% sugar (such as a soft drink) or nearly so.

What it means for your week as a whole

Currently I get 26 Daily Points and — like everyone else — 49 weekly points.  With the new program, you vary in the amount of weekly SmartPoints you get as well as in the daily points.  The new program currently tells me that I will get 30 daily SmartPoints and 28 weekly SmartPoints. (Note that this may or may not be what it it will be when the program goes live.  I’m just assuming this is accurate). On first glance that seems OK.  When you do the math, I get a total of 7 more SmartPoints a week than I was getting on PointsPlus.  So, more food!  Yay!
Not so fast.  A lot of my foods didn’t change in the amount of points that they have. But, there are more foods that I eat that go up in SmartPoints compared to what they were with PointsPlus than there are foods that go down in SmartPoints.  Even on weeks where I didn’t eat any of the foods that went up a lot in points, I still had a creeping up of points on most days.  For example, for one week, I ate an average of 30 PointsPlus a day.  That was a good week for me.  As many of my readers I know, I tend to eat lowish carbs.  I limit added sugar and avoid refined grains.  That week I was particularly careful how I ate.  I ended up with 19 Weekly Points left.  Calculating that week using SmartPoints I ate about 32 SmartPoints a day.  I ended up with 9 Weekly Points left.  So, that was all good.
But, I don’t eat as carefully every week  To give a dramatic difference, there was a week where I ate an average of about 31.5 PointsPlus a day and ended the week with 10 Weekly PointsPlus left.  Calculating that week using SmartPoints, the picture is not that pretty.  I ate an average of about 39.5 SmartPoints a day and ended with -38 Weekly SmartPoints.  Ouch.  Now, that week happened to be my birthday and I had a super indulgent meal at Carrabba’s sharing a chocolate dessert.  Then, later in the week I had Double Chocolatey Chip Frappuccino at Starbucks with nonfat milk and no whip.  And, a lot of my other eating that week was not stellar in terms of eating more junk food than usual.

And what about Activity?

Even on a good week, my analysis shows that I ended up using more SmartPoints than I did PointsPlus.  For example, the week where I used 209 Points Plus, but used 227 SmartPoints.  That is an increase of 18 SmartPoints, but I only get 7 more SmartPoints a week than I got on PointsPlus.  For a week where my eating is not quite as good as it was that week, it will be very easy to use up all my Weekly Points.  The obvious solution at that point is to eat some of my FitPoints.  And, I really wonder if that is part of the design intent.
Like many members, I rarely ever ate my Activity Points.  It wasn’t so much that I was against eating them, rather, it was that I never got to them.  I almost always had some Weekly Points left over (yes, there were exceptions).  So, whether or not I earned Activity Points made no difference to my eating.  They certainly made a difference (in my opinion) to my overall health and well-being, but I didn’t need to earn them in order to be able to eat more.
It strikes that some people, particularly those who eat a lot of high sugar or high saturated fat foods, will find that they need to earn FitPoints in order to be able to eat as much as they ate before.  For example, I calculated last Saturday using SmartPoints and found that I only have 15 Weekly SmartPoints to last me for the rest of the week.  Yes, I ate out on Saturday and it was a higher calorie day.  Under PointsPlus, though, I have 37 Weekly Points left and I probably won’t eat all of them.  Having only 15 Weekly SmartPoints left, though, is a different matter.  It is very easy to use all of those up just getting a few more points a day on the foods that have gone up a little bit.  There isn’t room for any of the foods that have gone up a lot.  Unless, of course, I decide to earn FitPoints and eat them.
Again, the website seems less implemented on the details of the FitPoints. I don’t know for sure if there are differences in how they are calculated or not (I sync my Fitbit with Weight Watchers).  But, I do wonder if part of what Weight Watchers is doing is making it where people are more likely to use up their Weekly Points and will need to get points from activity and use them to eat like they ate before. Of, they could just change how they eat.  Or, ideally, both increase activity and eat healthier.

Overall Thoughts

So far, I really like this.  I’ve long felt that the big negative of PointsPlus was that it didn’t do enough to encourage healthy eating.  It was far too easy to use your PointsPlus on junk food.  Yes, the formula disadvantaged fats (all fats, even the healthy ones) and carbs somewhat.  But, that had two problems.  First, it disadvantaged even the healthy fats.  It didn’t differentiate type of fat.  Now, it does.  It did have some differentiation on carbs due to counting fiber, but it really wasn’t enough in my opinion.  The result is that sometimes foods with healthy fats in them got disadvantaged in the formula (i.e. had a higher PointsPlus value) when they really shouldn’t have been.  Also, the overall effect of less healthier food on point count was relatively modest.  If you take a food that was high sugar, for example, it had a higher PointsPlus value than if it had not had sugar, but it wasn’t that big a difference. With SmartPoints, the difference between a food that is high sugar and one that is high protein instead is dramatic.  The difference between a high saturated fat food and one that is not is also notable.
Back in the day, when I joined Weight Watchers, it was an exchange plan.  We had certain optional calories each week and that was the only way to, say, eat a candy bar or a piece of cake.  And, we received few enough optional calories that you really were constrained as to how often you could do that.  With all the various point programs, that constraint was much less.  If you were willing to sacrifice nutrition, you could eat a lot of unhealthy food and still stay within your points.  With SmartPoints, that will be much harder to do.
At this point, I think the balance is nice.  I can choose to eat something with high sugar or high saturated fat.  There is a high sugar food I used to eat that is 11 PointsPlus.  I knew the food wasn’t good for me, but there was a time that I ate it almost weekly.  I quit doing it because it was a high sugar food and I decided it wasn’t good for me.  The SmartPoints calculator says that item is now 17 SmartsPoints, which is more than half of my daily points!  Given the limited Weekly Points that I will have, there is no way I would eat that food weekly.  It is just too expensive to do it.  I might think it was worth it to eat it very occasionally. And, the fact is, I don’t need to eat that food weekly.  It isn’t a very healthy choice.   I like that the new program guides me away from making that choice, although I am still allowed to make it if I really want to.
My Warning Again

This is based upon what I’ve seen on the Weight Watchers site before the program has been implemented.  What I’ve seen may not be complete and I am sure there are things that I don’t know.  These are my early impressions based upon what I see today.  It may change between now and when the program goes live.  In particular, the calculator itself my work differently that what I’ve seen.  Also, the tracker online at the Weight Watchers site has been wonky due to transitioning from the old tracker.  I wouldn’t take any of the numbers (including how many SmartPoints I’ll end up with) as being cast in stone.  YMMV.